Zero Tolerance or Unneccessary Legislation?

Bans in local legislation raise questions, prompt ridicule.

ByABC News via logo
January 8, 2009, 1:33 AM

Aug. 18, 2007 — -- In New York the trademark jingle of the iconic ice cream truck has been silenced.

In Sacramento you have to use your inside voice on a thrill ride called the Screamer.

And in Murpheesboro, Tenn., the city council implemented a body odor ban on its workers. Forget your deodorant and you could be breaking the law.

"If it's an odor that is offensive to those around them, and if there are complaints," a member of city council said, "then that is the test."

But that was not enough of an argument to convince the workers the ban would affect.

One worker said, "If you work, you're going to perspire, you're going to smell."

With more and more schools and local governments telling people what they can't do these days, some say America has become a nation of bans.

"Bans are the easy shorthand way for people to deal with problems or ideas they don't like, or actions they think are too dangerous for folks," said Kevin Keenan of the ACLU. "And too often, it slips quickly into the absurd."

There was the case of graduation caps decorated in honor of the United States Army that collided with a school weapons ban. Two fifth graders in California were forced to take weapons off of the mortar boards they had decorated for their graduation.

"I had to use scissors and just cut my Army man off right there in front of everybody," said Cole McNamara, 11, "and I had to step aside before graduation."

The principal told the students that if they wanted to graduate alongside their fifth grade class, they had to cut the guns off their toy soldiers.

"I put gauze around the stubs and I colored them red so it looked they were wounded," McNamara said.

"There was a lack of reasonableness and a lack of common sense," said Glen Nakata, the father of Austin Nakata, one of the boys asked to alter his graduation cap.

McNamara's mother, Christine, said the boys were denied their personal expression.

"It's an extreme interpretation of what they are calling a zero tolerance policy," she said.

Zero tolerance bans are everywhere these days. Some complain they're too black and white.

"The zero tolerance policies are ill-advised, because you don't consider any of the mitigating circumstances," Keenan said. "Life is just too complicated and has too many nuances. Judges know that, and they take in[to] consideration all the factors. And these zero tolerance policies do not."

As much as some people may not like them, experts say in most cases they are legal and they work.

"Blanket bans can deter people because they're short, sweet and clear," said Lisa Bloom, an attorney and anchor for Court TV. "They [people] understand what they're supposed to do and what they're not supposed to do."

A seemingly silly ban on booing at a Washington state high school was, in fact, designed to curb the larger problem of unruly behavior.

"It's the organized efforts to make fun of someone that becomes personal in nature that can escalate, then, into other concerns," said Mike Colbrese, principal of Washington State High School.

ABC's Andrea Canning contributed to this story.

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